Calif. could close three more state prisons, governor's budget says

The proposal doesn't say anything about which prisons might be closed


By Wes Venteicher
The Sacramento Bee

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Gov. Gavin Newsom’s new budget proposal suggests California could close three more prisons in the next three years.

Citing reductions in the number of people in prison, Newsom’s new budget proposal says it “may be possible” to close three additional prisons by the fiscal year that ends in June 2025.

Inmates walk across the grounds of Valley State Prison in Chowchilla, Calif.
Inmates walk across the grounds of Valley State Prison in Chowchilla, Calif. (Photo/Andrew Kuhn of Sacramento Bee via MCT)

Newsom’s administration closed one state prison — Deuel Vocational Institution in Tracy — last year, reducing the number to 34. The governor has been trying to shut a second, California Correctional Institution in Susanville, but its closure is tied up in court.

Newsom’s new budget proposal said the state prison population stood at about 96,600 at the end of April, down 3% from December. The Governor’s Office projects the population will drop to about 95,600 by 2025.

Three years ago, the state imprisoned about 120,000 people.

The population reductions have been driven by COVID-19 releases, sentencing changes, adjustments to how inmates earn credits that can shorten sentences and other factors.

As the population shrinks, spending keeps going up. Friday’s budget proposal estimates California’s correctional spending will reach $18.7 billion in the year ahead, an increase of about $87 million from the present fiscal year. The Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation will spend about $104,000 per inmate, according to a budget document.

“The Administration is committed to right-sizing California’s prison system to reflect the needs of the state,” Newsom’s budget proposal states.

The proposal doesn’t say anything about which prisons might be closed. Lawmakers have criticized the corrections department for not publishing detailed criteria specifying how it makes decisions about closures.

The corrections department under Newsom is pursuing changes to good-time credits for prisoners that could accelerate population reductions.

Critics – including a group of 28 district attorneys who unsuccessfully challenged the changes in court – have said the changes could shorten sentences for up to 76,000 serious and violent offenders.

Cutting costs at California prisons

Prison closures are one of the few ways to truly save money in California’s costly correctional system.

Newsom’s proposal to close three more accords with a Legislative Analyst’s Office recommendation from fall 2020. The office estimated closing five prisons by 2025 could save the state $1.5 billion.

The corrections department under Newsom completed the state’s first prison closure in decades last September, when it shut Deuel Vocational Institution.

The closure will save $150 million per year starting in the fiscal year ahead, according to a summary of Friday’s budget revision.

The administration announced plans last year to close California Correctional Center in Susanville, but the City of Susanville challenged the closure of the major local employer in court.

A judge put a pause on the plans in September. The closure would save an estimated $122 million per year, according to budget documents.

How many can state close?

The corrections department also reduced some minimum-security beds at California Correctional Institution and California Training Facility last year, and three years ago it ended California’s last contract to house inmates out-of-state, according to the budget proposal.

Criminal justice advocates who want the state to invest more in rehabilitation, including Californians United for a Responsible Budget, have called on lawmakers to go further by closing eight more prisons by 2025.

“A serious plan for prison closure must include deep investments in prison towns to move them toward new, healthy economies, and center investments in healthcare, education, reentry services, and housing for justice impacted families,” the group’s executive director, Amber-Rose Howard, said in a recent news release.

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